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26 May 2016

Global Connections and NZ's Housing Crisis Put into Perspective

This post is written in Bangkok (literally on my phone in the grounds of the Grand Palace) — a brief reflection on global connections and how lucky we are.

I'm in Thailand this week to present at the Fifth Annual Modular and Precast Construction Conference, as a keynote and as of a few minutes ago, the opening welcome as well — no, not nervous at all, thanks for asking.

The New Zealand story that I will be sharing is about speaking to clients through 'show and tell' — the innovation home village, and specifically the lessons PrefabNZ learnt through facilitating the HIVE Home Innovation Village in Christchurch after the Canterbury quakes (2012-2014).

Ten amazing spirited and generous housing manufacturers showed their homes on a slice of the Christchurch City Council's Canterbury Agricultural Park. It was a massive exercise in stakeholder relationships and harnessing post-disaster good will to create value for those who had lost their homes.

Ten homes were shown with a variety of sustainability features, lifetime design aspects, materiality (timber, steel and concrete were all represented), design flair (some architecture award-winning, some not), and all within a specified price bracket ($200-250k). PrefabNZ launched a commemorative book about the HIVE at our CoLab event in April. It's beautifully designed by Emelia Atkins, so get in touch if you would like one.

At the PrefabNZ CoLab, we were reminded by Australian David Chandler about New Zealand's position in the Asia-Pacific Rim and the importance that this will play as our construction ties bring us closer together in coming years. NZ's XLam just announced this week that they will be opening a cross laminated timber (CLT) plant in Australia — this is an exciting trans-Tasman development. One of XLam's CLT projects will be the site visit at the next Cluster event in Christchurch (June 28). And PrefabAUS recently said their annual conference shindig will be in Sydney in October — another good reason to cross the ditch.

Both Australia and New Zealand have strong trading links with China and import modular and other prefab bits and pieces. We've been doing that for over a decade with good results. The onus is on the kiwi importer to ensure that the building parts comply with building code — something that PrefabNZ reinforced at the Building Officials (BOINZ) conference in Christchurch this month, coinciding with an impending release of MBIE's Guidance for Manufactured Building Solutions.

But there are some obvious differences between what the kiwis and Aussies are building, versus the rest of South-East Asia. Where our local vernacular is a stand-alone four bedroom home in any shade of 'tea', the standard in more densely populated nations is obviously more compact, doing more with less, and bringing shared living out into common areas.

Auckland's current conversations are about fence heights and NIMBY's complaining about potential three storey walk-ups in their neighbourhood. It seems crazy. We are not seeing the big picture. We are arguing about these details without looking around the Asia Pacific region to see how increasing density inevitably affects the need for better infrastructure and more vertical building forms in growing cities.

We must stop quibbling about small irritations and start looking much further into the future. It's time to open our eyes. We simply don't realise how lucky we are.

Here in Bangkok, three storey buildings are a low-rise luxury, and likely to be razed and replaced by mid-high rise by the time I next visit. Thailand is full of intensity and paradoxes; on a canal ride yesterday I was struck by the intense poverty of timber dwellings crumbling into the water, yet a young boy with an iPod was there on his steps waiting for a boat. Mad social inequity yet no shortage of digital devices. Around the corner I watched a bird get consumed whole by a giant Water Monitor (think of a Komodo Dragon or small crocodile) lying on a raft of accumulated rubbish in the fetid canal — google told me that they enter people's homes, gross.

IMG 2058

A few blocks away is the Grand Palace and the Golden Mount Temple with mind-boggling amounts of inlaid mother-of-pearl, gold leaf covered Buddha, Chinese porcelain mosaics, and more layers of glitzy ornamentation than is believable. Excess knows no bounds when it comes to religious shrines. It is astounding to comprehend the level of investment (human, financial, or otherwise) that has gone into creating these structures several hundred years ago.

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What can we learn about the reverence of architecture so long ago, alongside the reality of multi-layered living in this region of the world today? Invest in good design perhaps, listen to the urban experts perhaps, and remember just how lucky we are.

Fifth Annual Modular and Precast Construction Conference, Bangkok, Thailand
HIVE CH, limited-edition commemorative book
Christchurch Cluster Event on June 28 — free for members of PrefabNZ, NZIA, NZGBC, ADNZ, DINZ, IPENZ

Written by Pamela Bell, founder of PrefabNZ.
Pamela is a consultant for innovation in the built environment. For more information, visit her website.

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